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Thursday
Oct232008

Play Styles

Every gaming community is a weird mirror image of every other gaming community. The same personalities and the same play styles seem to repeat themselves, ad infinitum. While reading about the personalities throughout the history of chess, I was struck by how similar it all was to the personalities I grew up with playing Street Fighter. I will now relate to you some of those personalities, and I will also take a very controversial stand: I believe that there is one style of play that is superior to all others. The upper echelons of gamers always seem to show a similar mix of varied play styles, but the one true style has its way of coming out on top. This is certainly not the style I am known for, but I’m working on it. Perhaps you will recognize these players in your own gaming communities.

The Turtles

Chess Player: Tigran Petrosian, The Turtle (1929-84)

Petrosian was often criticized for his “boring” play. He paid careful attention to his pawn structure and rarely exposed himself with any kind of pawn weakness. He would stop his opponent’s attacks before they even started.

With the initiative Petrosian often played like a python, squeezing and squeezing the victim until he was almost happy to resign. When the chances were balanced, Petrosian was like a mongoose deflecting every thrust. —Larry Parr, Outspoken Chess Player

My circles have a different animal-term for such a player: a turtle. The turtle takes no risks, and engages in no unnecessary action, much to the dismay of the spectators who always hate a turtle. Petrosian had these responses to his critics:

Some consider that when I play I am excessively cautious, but it seems to me that the question may be a different one. I try to avoid chance. Those who rely on chance should play cards or roulette. Chess is something quite different. —Tigran Petrosian
They say my chess games should be more interesting. I could be more interesting—and also lose. —Tigran Petrosian

His second response goes to the heart of the matter. Petrosian, and nearly all turtles, are simply trying their best to win given the particular situation and their own knowledge and skills. Petrosian did not win many tournaments, usually taking second or third place, but he was still regarded as nearly impossible to beat. Even turtles have their day, and in 1963 he won the World Championship from the top Soviet player Mikhail Botvinnik.

Street Fighter Player: Ricky Ortiz, The Turtle

Ortiz is an unusual little fellow: dainty and effeminate, he often changes his hairstyle and hair color, and he occasionally wears glitter on his face. Like Petrosian, he is widely criticized for his “boring” play, yet he is also considered almost impossible to beat.

Although I am known for my patience in tournament matches and my tendency to annoy the opponent, Ortiz has taken these methods to entirely new heights. He plays a nearly zero-risk game, and is content to eke out a small advantage in life totals over his opponent. He then shamelessly “runs away” for the rest of the match. (This prevents the opponent from being able to hit him, and when the timer runs out, the game awards victory to whoever has the most remaining life.) His infinite patience upsets even the most solemn opponents as they become more and more desperate to even things up while the time ticks down. Ortiz is a slippery fish that’s hard to catch.

His other skill is his ability to hover just at the “sweet spot” range: the range where his moves are most effective and his opponent’s moves are least effective. He baits his exasperated opponents into attacking at the wrong time, and uses his excellent reflexes to punish them for it. Gaining a lead allows him to run away even more, further angering his opponents and the crowd.